Shane Phelan: They say tourism would be hit, but just how much?
Published 18/02/2014 | 02:30
THE vexed question of what to do with EirGrid's high voltage power cables doesn't get any easier to answer when examined from an economic standpoint.
Keep them overhead and you run the risk of doing significant damage to one of our largest indigenous industries, tourism interests warn.
Put them underground and you run the risk of inflating electricity bills for the next five decades and lessen the country's attractiveness as a place to invest and create jobs, goes the counter-argument.
Both points of view have some merit, but only one has actually been costed to any degree.
Estimates vary, but the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) believes there would be at least an additional 3pc increase in electricity bills over the next 50 years should the entirety of North-South Interconnector, Grid Link and Grid West go underground.
That's an additional €100m that electricity users will have to pay each year, or an additional €36 a year, on the average household's electricity bill.
The CER admits this is a very conservative estimate, and going by assessments made in the past by the UK's National Grid, the additional annual cost to consumers could be much higher, between 6pc and 10pc.
The ongoing maintenance and repair of underground cables is also hugely expensive and much more disruptive than for overhead lines. A recent report by National Grid estimates it takes between two and six weeks to identify faults with underground cables.
Deep and wide excavations are needed to find the faults – up to four metres wide by 30 metres long.
The flipside of this argument is that the extra energy costs and isolated excavations from time to time isn't much of a price to pay to avoid pylon blight doing untold damage to our €5bn tourism industry.
If this argument has a weakness, it is that no one has actually been able to estimate how bad the affect on tourism might be if scenic areas are chosen for pylon routes.
Consultants hired by Failte Ireland to assess the potential impact on tourism of the Grid Link project did not even attempt to put a figure on the potential damage.
The report by consultants Brady Shipman Martin recommended more weight be given to tourism concerns in the routing of the power lines.
It argues that what it called the "landscape resource" makes a "significant contribution to the tourism sector". As such, it says, there needs to be "a balanced and objective consideration of the landscape, its features and assets" before a final route for the cable network is plotted.
The report calls for more consideration to be given to the proximity of historic properties, heritage sites, trees and woodlands.
"It should be noted that many of these historic properties also view their adjoining landscape as a 'borrowed' landscape setting, which forms an important element in vistas and avenues to and from the property," the report says.
"Likewise, heritage sites depend on their attending landscape for historic settings and for their visual interpretation and presentation."
These views are supported by the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), which described Ireland's natural and scenic beauty as "the bedrock of our tourism product".
"Anything that threatens this would be to the detriment of the sector and tourism businesses in the affected areas," it said in a statement.
"While there may be additional costs in terms of energy prices, the IHF maintains that the country would be better served by putting this electricity network underground."
An Taisce, the national trust, also raised concerns for tourism in a submission to EirGrid.
"The extent of expenditure and environmental impact of a project of this nature cannot be justified in the absence of a sound evidential basis, particularly in light of the negative socio-economic effects on local amenity and tourism, which are critically important to indigenous employment," its submission read.
The weight of the arguments listed above can be debated at length, but there is one point which seems indisputable – we need to improve the energy transmission network, particularly in the west and in the border region, whether that involves overhead lines or not.
Strategic consultant, investment adviser and ex-chief executive of Bord Gais John Mullins said the majority of the west was relying on a 110,000-volt network that did not have sufficient resilience to attract major multinational firms.
Under the Grid West plan, involving 100km of power cables from north Mayo into Roscommon, this would become a 220,000-volt network.
Mr Mullins said there had been "plenty" of incidents in the past of momentary cutouts in power, which would have proved disastrous for certain types of companies, particularly those using intricate manufacturing processes.
"If you are a multinational producing (computer) chips, you can't afford an interruption in electricity, even momentarily, because the chips will get damaged," he said.
IBEC said major manufacturing and service employers were constantly telling the employers' body how important it was to have an electricity supply that was reliable, as well as clean and affordable.
A spokesman said it was worried about the knock-on effect to electricity costs for families and businesses if power lines were placed underground.